Conversation about gender roles and gender dynamics can be challenging, and more so in a context of traditional cultural values. Nou Yang, board chair of Hnub Tshiab/Hmong Women Achieving Together (HWAT) says that mixed gender conversations hardly ever occur in the Hmong community. “It’s radical to bring women and men together to talk,” Yang stated.
HWAT’s Family Dialogues Program, launched this year, is the exception in her culture, bringing together men and women in facilitated conversations around gender. The first session was in July and planning is under way for more, thanks to a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.
Strict gender roles abound in traditional Hmong culture, Yang explained. Women are expected to put family first and focus on their duties as housewives, daughters and daughters-in-law. Men are in positions of power, able to speak for and make decisions on behalf of their family and clan.
As more Hmong relocate to the United States and become acculturated, these roles need to be re-examined, believes MayKao Y. Hang, chair of HWAT’s investment committee. In a typical Hmong family, girls go to school and are more likely to perform chores like cooking and caring for younger siblings, Hang said. Boys are usually not expected to help as much and instead expect that they will be served. “In the meantime, the daughters are exhausted,” Hang said.
“The younger generation wants to be on equal footing, but elders still determine when and if that happens,” Yang said. By engaging in conversations with people of different ages, genders and levels of acculturation, Family Dialogue participants learn to question and challenge these traditional roles.
“People must first become personal agents of change in order to create social change,” Yang said. She described one man who committed to reconnecting with his sister, who had been ostracized by his family after getting a divorce. Another married couple realized that if they didn’t want to perpetuate traditional gender roles, they could change how they parented their children and encourage a wider range of opportunities for both girls and boys.
Hang, who is the president and CEO of Wilder Foundation, is the first woman to hold that position. She admits that being in a leadership position and being a Hmong woman can be challenging, where leadership is more often male than female because of the clan structure. She credits the support of her husband, whom she refers to as a strong Hmong man, for some of her success in overcoming these barriers.
“Families have to do this together,” Hang insisted. Improving the lives of Hmong women and girls is not just for women to do, she continued.
Yang agrees, and said this principle sparked the Family Dialogues Program. “As an organization, HWAT can’t focus only on Hmong women empowering Hmong women,” she said. “We don’t live in a vacuum. If people aren’t supporting [women], then it’s hard to be a Hmong woman leader.”
Be A Changemaker:
Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together is a virtual organization without a space to call home. They are looking for organizations to partner with for space or co-sponsoring speakers. Hmong readers are invited to share their stories. Volunteer time and financial contributions would also be welcomed.